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The explanatory style scores of 38 persons with physical disabilities (PWPD) and 32 persons not physically disabled (PNPD), all attending college, were assessed using the Academic Attributional Style Questionnaire (AASQ). The research literature suggests that females tend to possess an explanatory style that is somewhat more pessimistic than males. Furthermore, women with physical disabilities have been described in the literature as being passive and dependant, which may suggest the presence of a pessimistic explanatory style. For these reasons, it might have been expected that female participants with physical disabilities would obtain the most pessimistic explanatory style scores. Because such an explanatory style has been linked to deficits in a variety of life domains, this difference can be significant. However, the results of the present study showed that females with physical disabilities obtained the most optimistic explanatory style scores. These results suggest a need to reconceptualize how gender and disability relate to explanatory style.

The reformulated model of learned helplessness suggests that not all individuals are at the same risk for developing signs of learned-helplessness (e.g., deficits in mood and motivation) when confronting some unpleasant event (e.g., failing a test or not understanding the contents of a lecture). Those who attribute their own roles in such negative situations to factors that are internal (i.e., it happened because of me), stable (i.e., it will always be this way), and global (i.e., it will be this way with everything I try) are said to possess a pessimistic explanatory style (ES). A pessimistic explanatory style is then thought to make persons subsequently prone to experience learned-helplessness deficits. On the other hand, those who attribute their failures to factors that are external/unstable/specific, the optimistic ES, tend to face life's failures with renewed energy and determination.

The pessimistic explanatory style has been linked to deficits in a variety of life domains. For example, research has shown a relation with depression (Peterson & Seligman, 1984), health problems (Kamen-Siegel, Rodin, Seligman, & Dwyer, 1991), diminished work productivity (Seligman & Schulman, 1986), and poorer school performance (Peterson & Barrett, 1987). Additionally, research has shown that women are more likely to utilize a pessimistic explanatory style than are men, which suggests that they are at greater risk for having problems related to these areas (Nolen-Hoeksema, Girgus, & Seligman, 1992).

Seligman, Nolen-Hoeksema, Thornton, and Thornton (1990) examined the relation between athletic performance and explanatory style. Their findings showed that male swimmers obtained explanatory style scores that were significantly more optimistic than the female swimmers. In fact, female swimmers, despite their status as world-class athletes, obtained explanatory style scores equivalent to their typical college female counterparts. This finding is especially significant when considering the primary research findings which demonstrated that swimmers with the more optimistic ES scores showed enhanced performance following an artificially induced failure condition.

Gender deficits such as these are important when one considers the relation between ES and the previously mentioned life domains. These gender differences are further compounded by the finding that women with physical disabilities have been viewed by society as passive and dependent (Vash, 1981; Healey, 1993). Because passivity and dependance are considered to be characteristic behaviors of learned helplessness, it could be hypothesized that females with physical disabilities would exhibit a pessimistic explanatory style. On the other hand, the perception of females with disabilities as being passive and dependent might reflect derogatory social stereotypes that are groundless. The present study examined these two alternatives in a sample of college students with disabilities.



Thirty-eight persons with physical disabilities (PWPD) and 32 matched persons not physically disabled (PNPD) were examined. Participants were matched on gender and age ([+ or -] 4 years). As older age matched controls became difficult to recruit, certain PWPD members remained unmatched. Despite this, the two groups measured similarly on various demographic variables (see Table 1). PWPD females made up 55.30% (n = 21) and PNPD females made up 68.80% (n = 22) of their respective groups. The total sample was comprised of 61.40% females.

Table 1 Demographic Information
                PWPD    PNDP    COMB    df    t      p

AGE       M    33.37   30.66   32.13   68   1.07    .29

          SD   10.63   10.43   10.55

YRS       M     4.13    4.47    4.28   63   -.54    .59

          SD    3.02    1.76    2.50

HRS       M    95.52   94.20   94.89   57    .09    .93

          SD   65.50   44.26   55.96

GPA       M     3.12    3.06    3.09   62    .43    .67

          SD    0.47    0.50    0.48

SES       M    37.72   39.63   38.57   59    .54    .59

          SD   13.87   13.57   13.66

Note. PWDP = persons with physical disabilities; PNDP = persons not physically disabled; COMB = combined group; YRS = years D26; HRS = hours completed; GPA = grade point average; SES = socioeconomic status (Hollingshead rating).

All participants were enrolled at the University of North Texas and involved in a larger research project. Disabilities represented in the present study included: visual impairment = 10; hearing impairment = 7; hidden = 5; and motor/skeletal = 16. The mean duration of disabilities in the present sample was 16.99 years, SD = 12.68.


Demographic Information. Information concerning identifying data, disability status, educational background, and parental education/occupation was collected via a brief questionnaire.

Academic Attributional Style Questionnaire. The Academic Attributional Style Questionnaire (AASQ) was used to measure explanatory style (Peterson & Barrett, 1987). The AASQ is a 36 item questionnaire describing 12 negative school related events (e.g., you cannot get all the reading done that your instructor assigns). It requires approximately 20 minutes to complete under normal self-administered conditions and approximately 30 minutes if administered orally.

Participants were asked to state a single cause for each negative event and then asked to rate each cause along each of the three ES dimensions. Attributions rated as external, unstable, and specific received ratings towards one (highly optimistic). Attributions rated as internal, stable, and global received ratings towards seven (highly pessimistic). The ratings were then averaged across the 12 situations and the 3 dimensions to derive an explanatory style score which ranged from 1 to 7.

Peterson and Barrett (1987) reported satisfactory internal consistency of .84 for the AASQ and a mean score of 4.31. Additionally, the partial correlations found between ES and various academic factors provide some evidence of the AASO's construct validity: GPA, r = -.28; academic goal specificity, r = -.30; and advising visits, r = -.29.

Revised Beck Depression Inventory. The revised Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Beck & Steer, 1987) was used to quantify depression. The BDI is a 21 item self-report questionnaire that is said to measure depression. Increased scores are said to denote severity of the depression. It requires 5 to 10 minutes to complete under normal self-administered conditions and may take up to 15 minutes if orally administered. Internal consistency using Cronbach's coefficient alpha for the BDI was reported to be high, from .79 to .86 (Beck & Steer, 1987). Test-retest reliability was determined to be .90 after two weeks (Lightfoot & Oliver, 1985).


Participants completed their materials on a take-home basis. The demographic information questionnaire, the AASQ, and the BDI were contained in a more extensive packet used in a larger study. The questionnaires were available in different adaptive formats, which allowed PWPD individuals to complete them in a manner with which they were most comfortable. Three participants with visual impairments used an enlarged print format. Alternatively, two other participants with visual impairments used an audio recorded format. Others, either visually impaired or with some other physical impairment, required the use of a reader and/or scribe.

The scoring of the BDI required some modification. Specifically, item 20 was incorrectly entered into the final questionnaire packets prior to its distribution. Therefore, this item was excluded when computing BDI scores.


Females with physical disabilities obtained the lowest (most optimistic explanatory style), M = 4.04, SD = .62, while their male counterparts obtained the most pessimistic; M = 4.48, SD = 1.07. PNPD males and females obtained scores that followed the expected pattern: male M = 4.05, SD = .43 and female M = 4.37, SD = .69.

To determine whether gender or disability status influenced explanatory style, a 2 x 2 ANOVA was computed. The results showed that there were no main effects for gender or disability status: F(1, 56) = .43, p = .54 and F(1, 56) = .06, p = .81 respectively. However, there was a significant gender by disability interaction: F(1, 66) = 3.87, p = .05 (see Table 2). Figure 1 depicts this interaction and shows the slope and group difference follow-up tests.


Table 2 Explanatory Style by Gender and Disability
Source of      Sum of         Mean
Variation      Squares   df   Square

Main Effects      .26    2     .13   .23     .80
   Gender         .25    1     .25   .43     .51
   Disability     .03    1     .03   .06     .81

Gender by        2.20    1F    2.20   3.87   .05

Residual         37.63   66     .57

Total            40.09   69     .58

Note. Females with physical disability n = 21; females without physical disability n = 22; males with physical disability n = 17; males without physical disability n = 10.


Contrary to what might be expected given past social psychological research and theory, the PWPD females obtained the most optimistic explanatory style scores. Moreover, the explanatory style scores of PWPD females were significantly lower than those of PNPD females and PWPD males. Although follow-up ANOVAs used to break down the interaction showed only marginal point-by-point significance, the finding warrants careful consideration. First and foremost, this finding supports the notion that women with physical disabilities (at least those who are in college) are not likely passive and dependent. Such attributions are likely ill-placed social stereotypes.

Some evidence in the literature might offer tentative explanations for the obtained results. Baucom and Danker-Brown (1979) determined that individuals with androgenous sex role types did not react with performance or mood deficits in the face of forced failures. An extrapolation of these findings suggests that androgenous individuals are more likely to possess a more optimistic explanatory style. Also, research has shown that individuals with an androgenous sex role type are more likely to possess response strategies that are not only greater in number, but also more flexible (cf. Bem, 1975). Therefore, it seems possible that those females with physical disabilities who chose to attend and remain enrolled in college possessed more androgenous traits, along with the associated coping strategies, than their non-college bound counterparts. However, this interpretation is only tentative as the present study did not directly address this issue (i.e., no non-college students were included). Future studies in this area might take these issues into consideration.

These results suggest that there may be some substantial differences in cognitive styles within the population of females with physical disabilities. This has potentially important implications for this population. Females with physical disabilities who do not choose to attend college may in fact have deficits in their explanatory styles (as do their non-disabled counterparts). This possibility awaits further study.

Unexpectedly, men with physical disabilities were fairly pessimistic in their cognitive styles. It seems possible that these men might be faced with struggles and needs that they perceive as gender-role-incompatible. Perhaps they find themselves requiring social assistance and/or accomodation and begin to perceive themselves to be in an ego-dystonic "minority" status. If replicated by future studies, investigations should focus on the source of this pessimism among males with disabilities.

For all persons with a pessimistic cognitive style, appropriate interventions aimed at remediation can be made, such as those forwarded by Seligman (1990), such as self-disputation skills training. Furthermore, the variability within these results demonstrates that neither gender nor disability status dictates a person's capacity for achieving maximum potential and maintaining a healthy quality of life. Therefore, steps to "optimize" the explanatory styles of all individuals should prove worthwhile across a variety of life domains.


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RAMIRO MARTINEZ, PH.D. Texas A&M International University

KENNETH W. SEWELL, PH.D. University of North Texas
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Publication:College Student Journal
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000

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